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Female Empowerment: Horror in the 90s

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

Current music: Lykke Li - I Never Learn

Post by: Jessica

When I recall growing up in the 90s as a young woman, I always hear in the back of my mind “Girl Power”. I remember feeling, even as a young naive girl, that this was an important time for women to begin asserting themselves outside of the home and in the public. We had role models like the Spice Girls, Destiny’s Child, Alanis Morissette, Tori Amos, Xena Warrior Princess, Riot Grrls, Missy Elliot, Lauryn Hill, and Sex and the City. They were all talking about the power of being a woman and engaging in sex positive messaging. This was all part of the rise of Third Wave Feminism. The 90s was a woman’s movement all of its own - in a variety of ways and the horror genre was no different.

In the 1990s we saw the rise of women becoming “superhuman” or “supernatural” in their abilities to get through their day to day lives or save themselves and others. An strong element of the 90s was the emergence of witches in pop culture. Now, if you read my previous blog post, you will know that The Craft is an extremely important film to me and influenced my womanhood, just as it did many other creepy girls my age at the time. But there were other shows in television that dealt with the theme of witches and female empowerment that I also engaged in, like Sabrina the Teenage Witch. I loved this show! Melissa Joan Hart as Sabrina was my idol for a good length of time. I loved how campy it was, as well as serious. I admired her relationships with her aunts and her supernatural abilities were empowering to watch on screen.

And of course, you can’t forget Salem the cat! He was hilarious and probably what influenced me to want to get a black cat of my own so bad (I now have two and both give quite a bit of sass). There were other shows like Charmed, the film Practical Magic and of course if your were a reader instead, Hermione Granger from Harry Potter. All of these involved witches and themes around finding female empowerment through supernatural abilities.

I would also be remiss (and probably get the stink eye from Spinster #2) if I don’t mention the tv series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I talked about the film already, but the series was a different beast of its own. Sadly, I did not watch it growing up in the 90s but enjoyed it much later in life. This was a series that showed nothing but positive representations of women whether they were the protagonists (Buffy, Willow, Tara) or antagonists (Faith, Drusilla, Anya) .

Every element of this show allowed for exploration of feminist issues such as familial responsibilities, sexuality, femininity and accepting that not all heroes are perfect. It was a show that was deeply relevant in the 90s and representative of the motto “Girl Power”. However, the beauty of the show is that it stills remains relevant and continues to be an inspiration to women today.

While I have engaged mostly with representations of female empowerment in the horror genre in the 90s on the small screen, what about the silver screen? What about horror movies themselves? Well, after spending a month watching and reading about horror movies in the 90s, I quickly noticed a trend and that was that “women in horror movies of the 90’s were bad fucking- ass!” The whole idea of the Final girl was transformed in the 90’s and while male violence against women were still prevalent in horror films, however, now the Final Girl was a woman who engaged in immoral vices that would have led her female compatriots to die at the hands of the killer in films prior. Everyone talks about the film franchise Scream by Wes Craven (who also gave us the fantastic Final Girl Nancy Thompson in Nightmare on Elm Street and how Sidney Prescott became the new Final Girl, no longer a virgin and ready to shoot when she needs too.

But wait! There are other notable horror films in the 90s that emulates the new ideas of feminism becoming popular during that time. One of these films would be Candyman (1992). I just re-watched this film recently and I love the character of Helen Lyle. Not only does she suffer for the injustices white society had imposed upon African Americans but of those of a strong willed woman, who dared to investigate and unveil truths and when she tries to get others to see, she is cast aside by her husband, drugged and locked away in an asylum. We have Kathy Bates in Misery (1990), where we see an example of the monstrous feminine when a caregiver tortures her patient to have what gave her happiness and job back. The Blair Witch Project (1999), where we watch Heather, a strong career driven young women, undergo attack by a supernatural force and her companions as they try to find their way home out of the woods. This is representative of how men fear strong women and when they make one mistake, they do whatever they can to tear her down to reassure their masculinity.

I know that I am missing other great films that have female protagonists that represent the ideals of female empowerment.Honestly, I could go on to talk about each and every one of those films, but for the sake a brevity - I stuck with some of my favorites to show that that idea of ‘Girl Power’ not only influenced mainstream society but had significant impact on the horror genre which produced some significant horror classics and female role models.

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